Working the Undergraduates

Yesterday, a student came to office hours and laid this on me: “I e-mailed the rest of the class, and there are a lot of us that think the workload for this class is excessive.”  Something like that, anyway–the short of it was that he and other students have been talking about how hard my class is compared to their other classes.

First, I gotta give points to this student for having the courage to come talk to me about this.  Maybe it’s because I’m just an adjunct and not as intimidating as proper professors, but to confront the person who assigns your grade is pretty gutsy.  Kudos to him for that.  And I’ll take some kudos, as well, for creating an environment where students feel comfortable approaching their instructor in such a way.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can take all the credit for that.

Second: How the hell am I supposed to respond to that?  I mean, my immediate response was to thank the student for letting me know, because this is something that I want to be aware of; then I rushed into a muddled explanation/defense/set of suggestions for dealing with the work load.  But obviously I need to address this somehow in class.  A group of students are now grumbling about my work load, and that grumbling could very well turn into stubborn resistance to fully participating in the class: if the students feel that the work load is unfair, they will feel justified in withholding their labor in whatever ways they can and still be safe.  We’re not talking a full-scale rebellion–they’ll still come to class, submit their work, etc.–but it’ll be like pulling teeth to get them to talk in class.  And as it’s a discussion-based course, that’s going to make my life miserable.  So: what to do?  A few options come to mind:

  1. Tell them all to go to hell.  They saw the syllabus a week before class started, and they could have got out while they had the chance.   Hell, they could still leave.  Nobody’s got a gun to their head.  If you don’t like it, fuck off.  I am sooooo tempted to say this.  But no matter how correct it is–and I’m right, right?–it would be unproductive.
  2. Show them how much I’ve reduced the work load in this particular class over the past five years.  When I first started this course, I assigned five books for course reading (each with a book review), plus a semester-long original research paper requiring ten secondary and ten primary sources.  As it is now, they have to read three books for class, and they have a series of assignments leading to a research paper proposal, not an actual research paper, based on three secondary and three primary sources.  So I could basically waltz into class and say, “You think this is hard?  You should have seen this class three years ago!  That’s hard.”  Again, though, I can’t imagine this would be productive.  The students could simply respond with “Okay, it’s better than before, but it’s still bad.”  Which would probably drive me to response #1.
  3. Address in a delicate manner the fact that college is meant to be challenging.  I’m thinking of using a series of analogies, like: if you want to get stronger, you lift heavier weights; if you want to play an instrument better, you play more difficult music; if you want to be a better chef, you cook more challenging dishes.  Somehow the students need to come to understand that this class isn’t meant to check what they already know and can already do, but to get them to learn more and to improve their academic skills.
  4. Provide the students with some strategies on handling the work load.  Stuff like scheduling your work week; forming study groups; etc.  These are first-year students, mostly, and they’re still figuring things out–although, unlike the fall, they now have some confidence that they’ve figured out the game.  Come to think of it, this is probably a pretty big part of the problem: these students have developed a bit of arrogance about what college is supposed to be like (based on the four classes they had last semester), I come along and push them harder, and they kick back. Hmmm….
  5. Talk with some other faculty about their work loads for similar courses.  The student who visited me yesterday said friends of his in similar courses reported work loads ranging from a bit harder to much easier.  I explained to the student that there’s a delicate balance between leveling course expectations and providing professors the freedom they need to teach the way they best see fit.  But I can also understand the student’s frustration.  Frankly, though, I’ve lowered the bar as much as I think is responsible; if there really are professors who teach similar courses with a reduced work load, they’re letting these students off too easy.  Which, to me anyway, indicates a basic lack of respect for what these students are capable of and what they deserve.

Obviously, this little talk left me shaken.  It’s some combination of anger, frustration, self-righteousness, and confusion, and I’m not sure how this gets resolved.

The Unfortunate Passion of an Undergraduate History Major

While working on my dissertation, I’m adjuncting (more on my efforts to unionize in some other post), and a couple of “my” students have asked for my advice about graduate school.  Like many people, my knee-jerk reaction is to tell them to run the other direction.  But I also understand that for some of these students, there really doesn’t seem to be any other option.  And I’m not talking the “I’ve-never-been-out-of-school-so-what-else-am-I-gonna-do?” student, who clearly should not go to graduate school.  I’m talking about the students who are truly passionate about doing the work of history, who love to read, research, write, and teach.  I met with one such woman yesterday, and I went through the litany of problems with getting a PhD in history: the crazy faculty, the even crazier (and sometimes nasty) grad student colleagues, the meager allowance, and, of course, the horrid job prospects.  When I took a moment to breathe, the student asked, “Well, I’m not sure what to do, then.  Just abandon my passion?”

Ouch.  She didn’t mean for that to sting, but it did.  A few reasons: first, have I become so cynical, materialistic, and bourgeois that all of my decisions are based on career opportunities?  When did that happen?  And second: what kind of hypocrite am I?  I mean, I know damned well what’s going to happen in a couple of years: I’m going to get bitch-slapped by the job market.  And I’ll come back for more, because I frankly don’t know what else to do with my life.  Part of that comes from having done this for the last 10+ years of my life, and at this point, I’m all in, baby, win or lose.  But the more important part is that I can’t think of anything else worth doing–that this is important work.

So I told the student, no, don’t abandon your passion.  Go for it.  You’re going to do really well in graduate school, and don’t worry about the job market.  There’s no way of knowing what it’ll look like in five years, and there’s no point in worrying.  Do some smart things if you can–take a resume-boosting job between undergrad and graduate school; build good relationships with your family (you’ll probably need them more than you think you should in five years); marry money (just kidding.  Kind of).  And prepare yourself for the suckiness of graduate school and the job market.  But don’t give up on the only thing you know and want to do, because you’re exactly the kind of person we need doing it.

Post-Fellowship Season, AHA, First Semester, etc.

Yet another long spell since my last post.  I’ll get better, I promise.

Beyond the usual December/January personal business (holidays, etc.), I’ve been attending to some important or at least interesting things over the last few months:

1) Teaching.  I taught a class on African American history last semester, and it kicked my ass.  I had a lot of background reading to do just to keep up with the students’ excellent questions–seriously, these folks were brilliant, and I had to be on top it in order not to look like a total fool.  But there was also the challenge of teaching history to some students who were clearly more interested in hitting the picket lines and protest marches now. In suggesting that we pay understand and appreciate historical context and change over time as well as continuity, I’m pretty sure I came off as a reactionary.  Maybe, in the eyes of some of my students, a racist.  I think my student evaluations came in yesterday, so I’ll write more about this after I process that information.

2) Fellowship applications.  I love teaching, but it chews up a lot of time each week and doesn’t bring in much cash (at least when you’re adjuncting).  So I’ve been sending off fellowship applications like a mad man, trying to get myself set for next year so that I can pound through my dissertation.  To date, I’ve applied for four major (year-long) fellowships and three research travel grants, for a total of about $90,000.  Wouldn’t it be great to get all of them?  Or one of them?  Or at least a thank you note for having applied?  We’ll see if any of that comes through.  Doubt it.

3) AHA (American Historical Association) Conference.  For the first time, I hit the AHA.  It’s like most other conferences I’ve been to, but with all the annoying factors amped up by degrees of magnitude: graduate students kissing the asses of big-shot historians in some vain hope that they will be remembered; big-shot historians giving speculative presentations that a graduate student wouldn’t get away with; etc.  But there’s also the job application process, which is fucked up.  I had heard rumors, but didn’t expect this level of craziness.  It’s like this: if you’re lucky enough to get an interview, you show up in the job hall and take a seat in the waiting room, along with everyone else who’s applying for jobs–including the one you’re angling for.  When your name is called, you walk down a long hallway–you can almost hear shouts of “Dead Man Walking!”–and head into a cubicle for an interview.  I don’t know what happens in there, exactly, but there’s probably some other medieval ritual, possibly involving a torture device.  I’m glad I went to check it out so I know what to expect when I go on the market.

With all that behind me, I’m headed into research and writing in earnest now.  You know: the actual writing-a-dissertation part of being ABD.

Grumpy Bastard

I’ve been doing my level best* to confine my teaching–including prep work, etc.–to Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving M/W/F for dissertation.  But I keep falling behind, and this week I had to stay up late on Monday and get up early on Tuesday to grade and prep lectures.  Predictably, classes yesterday went poorly.  Fine; we’re allowed bad days, I say.  I’m more concerned that I was a truly grumpy and unpleasant bastard from Monday night through Tuesday.  The students, fortunately, didn’t bear the brunt of it.  My spouse, unfortunately, did.  Turns out I’ve developed an impossible need for absolute silence when I work, and it becomes even more exacerbated when I’m under the gun.  My spouse having the audacity to breathe or offer me a glass of water–well, that was simply unacceptable, and I delivered a few sharp and extremely ill-advised remarks.  Ugh.  Apologies galore, and my spouse forgave and understood, proving once again that I am the junior partner in the relationship.

Lessons learned?  Get my shit done during the day, especially if it’s due tomorrow.  If I’m going to work in the evening, choose stuff that’s not time-sensitive–reading a book for my dissertation is fine, but grading papers that need to be returned tomorrow is not.  And if that means that I need to do teaching prep during part of a dissertation day, so be it.

* I love that phrase.  It ranks right up there with “I don’t give a flying fuck.”  Which, of course, I shouldn’t say.  Dirty, dirty words.

Teaching African-American History: A Preliminary Reading List and Schedule

After reviewing some of the suggestions for readings in post-1865 African-American history and looking through a few syllabi, I’ve come up with a tentative reading list and schedule.  Thoughts and critiques are most welcome and desperately needed….

Week 1: Intro to class.  Students write short essay on how they have experienced race.  Discuss concept of race as construct, etc.

Weeks 2-3: Reconstruction and survey.  Reading: Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

Week 4: Lynching.  Reading: something from Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  Students will also reflect on photos of lynching from Without Sanctuary.

Week 5: Turn-of-the-century strategy.  Reading: DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, combined with an essay by Booker T. Washington.

Weeks 6-7: Living in or Leaving the South.  Reading: All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw.  Video: The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration

Weeks 8-9: The Civil Rights Movement in the South, in the North, and close to home.  Readings: case-study essays on civil rights activism in three different locations (trying to give students connection) and a critical assessment of the movement.

Weeks 10-11: Black Power and the Black Panthers.  Reading: Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story.

Weeks 12-13: Black culture, black politics, black society: blacksploitation, R&B/Soul/Hip-Hop/Rap, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Rodney King.  Readings: dunno yet.  Essays, but I’m not sure what.

Weeks 14-15: Post-Racial America [italicized, loaded question mark].  Reading: Obama’s Dreams From My Father

Teaching African-American History

I have the opportunity this fall to teach African American history, post-1865.  By all rights, ZZ should be teaching this course, but he’s not in the neighborhood, so I get a crack at it.  It’s a small class–8-10 students–of juniors/seniors, so we should be able to do some interesting in-depth readings and discussions.  But I’ll admit that I’m in unknown waters, and I’d like to get your help.  Below is a list of books recommended to me by a good friend and, I should say, a respected scholar of African-American history.  How about you?  Suggestions for readings, syllabi you like, etc.?  I’m particularly interested in including something from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., given the fortunate teaching moment provided by his unfortunate arrest for the crime of living in his own house

Possible books for African-American History Post-1865:
Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind
James Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow
some Washington / du Bois showdown
James Grossman, Land of Hope
All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw
Ida B. Wells Barnett, Southern Horrors
Litwack and Allen, eds., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America
Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit
Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty
Patrick Jones, The Selma of the North
Timothy Tyson, Radio Free Dixie
Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story
David Hilliard, This Side of Glory
Flores Forbes, Will You Die With Me?
Carol Horton, Race the Making of American Liberalism
Obama, Dreams From My Father

The Kids Are Alright

The student from my earlier post follows up:

Thank you very much Professor and I totally understand and believe I do
deserve the grade I recieve the grade I got, and do understand abou
ttreatign all your students equally. I am taking your next history corse
and have a mind set of shooting for a higher grade already. Thank you
again for everything!

Other than the poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling (maybe the student was on a Blackberry…), this made me feel pretty damn okay.  Of course, this means I’ll probably be faced with a similar situation with this student come the end of this term, but that’s weeks away, right?

“Could You Round My Grade?”

A New Year greeting from a student:

Hi professor,
I was wondering what I received on the final essay, and how close I was to
receiving a C+ in your class. I am .7 away from reaching my scholarship
and was wondering by any chance if you could round my grade or if I can do
any extra credit of some sort to raise my grade. If there is anything I
can do please let me know.

Not sure what to do with this.  First: the student’s not even close to a C+, sitting with a final grade of 74%, after having missed one quiz, bombed most of the rest, and done poorly on the final (a take-home essay, no less).  In short: the student earned a C, not a C+.  I’m inclined to tell the student that, and comfort myself in having upheld the standards that we value so dearly.

But.  (A) Do I really want this student to not get the scholarship?  and (B) As a “Visiting Full-Time Instructor” (read: temp), do I really give a shit?  Is it worth the time, energy, grief, and potentially bad press at the  non-research, student-oriented institution where I am now teaching and hope to get another gig next year?

Internets, I call on thee for wisdom!

Video, Music, Text, Analysis

Stay with me: I’m going to go from Radiohead videos to Powerpoint presentations in three paragraphs or less.

Listening to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” I can’t help but think of the song’s video, which, as I recall, is basically a cartoon man swimming to the bottom of the ocean to watch television.  You know, typical Radiohead melancholy/forbodding/end of the world stuff.  But here’s the thing: I’ve seen the video just one time, and that was seven years ago when the record came out.  But that video is burned into my head, just like the video for “Creep” or any other damned video I’ve ever seen.

This is why I don’t like videos or soundtracks: because the audio-video connection, once made, doesn’t ever seem to dissolve.   And I don’t like it.  The beauty of music, to me, is its meaning to the individual (especially something as indecipherable as Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work).  I hear a tune, and have my own picture of what it “looks like,” and that look is important to the relevance of that tune to my life.  The band made the song, but I made it into something important to me.  Maybe Thom Yorke wants me to think of a cartoon man at the bottom of the sea when I hear “Pyramid Song,” but he has just robbed me of the opportunity of relating that song more directly to my own world.

And maybe the same thing is true of text and image when we present it as historians.  Let’s say I do as my students command and have a visual presentation for every lecture.  I throw up an image of sharecroppers while talking about Reconstruction.  And maybe, probably, that helps students understand what I’m trying to say, what I’m trying to get across.  But maybe I’ve also just prevented students from exploring the various meanings of Reconstruction in American history.  Maybe I’ve short-circuited part of their brain that would have though more deeply about Reconstruction.  I’ve burned a particular image of Reconstruction in their brains, and it won’t go away.

Or maybe I’m just too lazy to prepare visual presentations.  In any case, the image/sound/text connection is strong, and I wonder if we take seriously enough its power.

p.s. Pyramid Song = dark, amazing beauty that makes me glad to be alive while also wondering about death.  Plus that wicked off-tempo piano.  Genius.

Newsflash: Students Underwhelmed by Lecture

Today, I gave a truly great lecture on the first half of the Civil War.  At least, I thought it was pretty great.  But judging from the students’ faces (oh,  how I wish I could have a camera catching each look of confusion!), the lecture wasn’t anything special.  Same sighs of boredom, same crossed-arms-instead-of-note-taking (what the hell is that about?  Do you know this already?  Am I boring you?  Then get the fuck out!), same packing up early (seriously: there’s nothing that pisses me off more).  Grr.

But the real conundrum is this: I really enjoyed prepping the lecture.  I made a potentially fateful decision: I put lecture prep before “my work” (reading for prelims, finishing minor field, etc.).  Usually, I try to spend my morning hours working on PhD stuff, then save class prep for the evening, when my brain is admittedly a little fuzzier and when I’m more likely to phone it in.  But not this time.  I had just read McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and decided that I wanted to do that.  So I threw myself into the lecture, spending at least 6 hours on the damn thing.  And I thought it was cracking good: battle stories, broad historical themes, portraits of leaders, the full meal deal.

And what’s the payoff?  Glass eyes and expressionless faces.  I’m not sure what I was expecting: applause?  Students literally on the edge of their seats?  Stupid.  Of course, I now know way more about the Civil War than before I wrote the lecture, and that’s not nothing.  But it’s an important lesson, I suppose: students in a lecture course might not be the best source for gratification for a scholar’s hard work.